San Juan County Public Hospital District #1 Commissioner J. Michael Edwards and San Juan Island Fire Commissioner Bob Jarman have met numerous times to discuss having San Juan Emergency Medical Services (SJI EMS) move from the hospital district to the fire district. The merger has several obstacles and different motivations for pursuing it.
Jarman wants to see Lopez, Orcas and San Juan Islands form a Regional Fire Authority. To do so requires all three to have the same set up - a combined fire and EMS department - something Orcas and Lopez already have.
Other motivations include financial stability for SJI EMS. There are grant opportunities available to EMS organizations that are part of a fire department. By being a separate agency, SJI EMS does not qualify for them.
The financial implications of a merger are complicated by the fact that the districts' boundaries do not align.
The fire district includes San Juan Island, Brown Island, and Pearl Island. The fire district provides services to the Town of Friday Harbor through a contract.
The hospital district includes the Town of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, and the islands of Brown, Pearl, Henry, Spieden, Stuart and Johns.
San Juan County Assessor John Kulseth and former county Assessor Paul Dossett have both written to Edwards informing him that if a merger occurs, the EMS levy would not be transferred. Voters would have to approve a new EMS levy using the SJI Fire District as the legal taxing district.
"Currently, the legal taxing district is SJI Hospital #1. As explained, the hospital district has a broader assessment base which allows voter approved EMS tax rate to create higher tax revenue. Yes, SJI Fire #3 could be the legal taxing district to put forward an EMS levy but their assessment base is lower than the hospital district so less revenue can be raised by a voter approved tax rate.
"Example: SJI Hospital 2016 assessment base is: $2,896,559.316 X $.50 = $1,448,279 revenue --- SJ Fire #3 assessment base is: $2,257,123.347 X $.50 = $1,128,561 revenue. The same 50 cent tax rate applied to the two districts would create a deficit of $319,718 by moving the EMS to Fire #3. Why would anyone do that?"
The assessed value of property in the San Juan Island Fire District for 2018 is $2,490,845,642. The levy rate is 0.548 percent and raises $1,366,409 in 2018.
The assessed value of property in the Hospital District for 2018 is $3,194,589,697. The levy rate is 0.464 and raises $1,483,423.
An expansion of the fire district to include the Town of Friday Harbor requires approval by voters.
The highest levy rate for EMS in Washington State is $0.50 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value. The most recent six-year levy (approved in 2016) was for the maximum. That set the dollar amount that could be collected. The rate has fallen to less that $0.50 cents due to the assessed value of the district increasing. (When you divide the set dollar amount into the higher assessed value the rate goes down.)
Some of the discussion, seen in the notes from the private meetings, show discussion of a $1.09 combined levy after the merger. That number was derived by taking Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Department's levy and dividing it by the number of residents in the Orcas Island Fire District. That per capita amount is then multiplied by the population of the merged district to come up with a $1.09 levy rate.
The levies are actually separate. So under this scenario, the SJI Fire District would need to ask voters to approve a higher fire department levy - from the present $0.548 to $0.59 and for voters to approve a $0.50 levy for EMS. A persuasive argument to the voters explaining why the fire department needs more funds would have to be made.
The maximum levy for a fire district is $1.50 per thousand dollars of assessed value.
Kulseth wrote: "EMS levies cannot take advantage of the higher rate of $1.50 allowed for a fire district. The $1.50 limit is for fire district purposes, not EMS purposes."
When the discussions about a possible merger will be open to the public is not known. PHD Commissioner Anna Lisa Lindstrum wants the process to be more transparent and has asked that the meetings be open to the public. That hasn't happened yet.
The Citizens Advisory Committee is composed of the former White Paper group - Edwards, Jarman, PHD Commissioner Mark Schwinge, SJI EMS Chief Jerry Martin, and Orcas Island Fire Chief Scott Williams, retired Lopez Island Fire Chief Jim Ghiglione.. Schwinge told the public at a recent hospital district meeting that the CAC would be expanded to include a few members of the public and the Friday Harbor Town Administrator and a Town Council member.